DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Instead of leading the field to the green flag in the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start from the back of the pack after wrecking his primary race car in practice.
Earnhardt still could win Sunday’s season-opening race — he’ll just have his work much harder to do so.
Earnhardt mangled his pole-winning car in practice Wednesday, colliding with five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and sliding into a wall.
“We’ve got plenty of race cars,” Earnhardt said. “I ain’t worried about how fast we’ll be or whether we’ll be as good. We’ll be fine. But it never feels good tearing them up.”
Earnhardt was pushing Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, in a two-car draft when Johnson had to back off the gas for slower-moving traffic in front of him. Earnhardt plowed into Johnson’s back bumper and nearly spun him out, but Johnson saved his car from skidding.
A second pack of cars led by Martin Truex Jr. closed quickly on Earnhardt’s bumper, causing the No. 88 Chevrolet to spin across the track and into the inside wall.
Johnson said he had to slow down suddenly when a pack of three cars ahead of them on the track — driven by Robby Gordon, Michael Waltrip and David Gilliland — drifted high from the bottom of the track toward the top.
“I was running out of space, and I thought that hole was going to close, and I lifted, and I got turned sideways from behind,” Johnson said.
The accident was largely a function of the two-car drafting style that has become the fastest way around Daytona International Speedway this year. Working together, two cars are so much faster than a single car or a larger pack that Earnhardt says other drivers have to watch the closing speed of the cars coming up behind them.
“You’ve got to pay attention out there, man,” Earnhardt said. “You want to come out here and race, you’ve got to pay attention.”
Hendrick Motorsports immediately pulled out a backup car for Earnhardt. He will have to forfeit the top starting spot in his qualifying race Thursday and Sunday’s season opener.
Earnhardt’s wreck wasn’t the only big development in an eventful Wednesday at Daytona, where NASCAR continued to tinker with its rules.
The track opened with NASCAR officials ordering a change to the restrictor plate designed to back speeds off the 206 mph mark reached earlier in Speedweeks. The move to a smaller plate is expected to slow cars by 2-3 mph when they are drafting.
Waltrip topped 206 in last weekend’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout.
“I don’t think you are going to hear one driver complain about that because it isn’t going to affect the racing,” defending Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray said. “You really can’t tell in the car, when everyone is moving the same speed.”
The Nationwide series also made a move to reduce speeds, changing the size of the tapered spacer that serves a similar function as a restrictor plate in the Cup series.
The changes have all come since Saturday night’s race, which had a very different style of racing than the big drafting packs everyone had grown accustomed to at Daytona and Talladega.
New pavement at Daytona created a smooth, fast surface, and teams have capitalized by figuring out that a two-car draft is the fastest way around. Reviews on the new style have differed, and NASCAR issued two technical changes following qualifying on Sunday designed to limit the amount of time two cars can stay hooked together.
Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon believes fans simply need to accept the new style of racing.
“I think there is some very exciting and entertaining aspects of it,” Gordon said. “I’ve had a lot of people have mixed emotions and several people have said to me, ‘Hey, I thought that was pretty cool. It wasn’t what I’m used to, but it’s pretty cool.’ So, I just don’t think you’re going to be able to change that.”
Meanwhile, Earnhardt will have to figure out how to work his way through the field.
It is the third car Earnhardt has used during Daytona Speedweeks. He also wrecked one in last weekend’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout.
The team will repair the Shootout car, and it will become his backup car for Sunday.
“I didn’t feel good about getting out there practicing, and didn’t think I needed to be out there practicing,” Earnhardt said. “I just had a bad feeling about it. We come running up on some guys that didn’t have their heads on straight and got into an accident.”